10 perfect days of the historic streets, epic meals, and coastal bliss that make Portugal the hottest family destination in Europe.
By Dina Harrison
Imagine waking up to see a fort – outside your window!?! We rouse the kids and head out, following our noses and our iPhones in search of coffee and pastries. The vibrant street art, waterfront perch and serious hills underfoot remind us of home in San Francisco – there’s even a red suspension bridge spanning the Tagus River to match the Golden Gate! But the bright azulejo-tiled buildings, delicious aromas and historic alleys tell us we’re somewhere completely different.
This is Lisbon. And these steps were just the beginning of neighborhood-after-neighborhood, town-after-town delights for ourselves and our kids during our summer stay in Portugal.
The kids were drawn to Portugal by the idea of seeing the westernmost and southernmost point in all of Europe. My husband and I came for the other reasons so many families spend their summers in this corner of Iberia: the ideal weather, epic landscape, architecture, history, food and culture all layered atop Portugal’s reputation for being one of the safest and most affordable countries in Europe.
In the end, our kids seemed to find adventure around every corner. Whether it was walking along the city walls, climbing the steps to a castle, or counting the steps to our apartment, it was always an adventure!
Tips for Exploring Lisbon Neighborhoods with Kids
Our kids begged us to start at the fort we could see from our window, the Castelo São Jorge. It’s on top of the hill overlooking both the Atlantic Ocean and the city of Lisbon. It’s a bit of a climb to the top but once you are there, the views are fantastic! The kids loved playing on the cannons and walking along the walls of the fort.
The Streets & Food of the Alfama & Baixa
From there, we meandered down into the Alfama neighborhood, checking out the tiny roads, souvenir shops and cobblestone streets. We hopped on a tuk-tuk-type vehicle and the driver took us around for a little bit. For about $20, our driver shared some tourist information with us, which was nice. Not all the drivers speak English but we got lucky.
We asked our driver to drop us in the Baixa neighborhood. We were on a mission to check out A Cevicheria, a ceviche restaurant that was written up in a lot of magazines and has quite the following. The wait was exceptionally long and there were lots of people just hanging out outside and having cocktails on the sidewalk. I took my daughter shopping as there are a lot of boutiques nearby, while my husband and son headed for the playground in the park around the corner. The food and ceviche were wonderful and we all loved the octopus sculpture hanging from the ceiling!
Another highly recommended restaurant was Cervejaria Ramiro. Fantastic food. Amazing. Every dish. Mostly all seafood. We got the crab and it was heavenly.
Tiger prawns, shrimp with garlic, clams – everything was good. We had a feast! I would go there again and again. People line up outside starting at 8pm. No reservations. But it’s a big place so it moves fast. It was featured on Anthony Bourdain and it didn’t disappoint. Every seafood meal in Portugal lived up to our high expectations.
Belém with Kids
The area is also home to pastel de nata egg custard tarts, and the ones found at the original mothership, Pastéis de Belém are, no joke, delicious. They’re definitely worth waiting for and the line moves quickly. We then toured the Jerónimos Monastery and Church while we let the heavenly pastries digest.
From there, we meandered up the hill to a fish market restaurant called Mercado do Piexe. This place, like many fish houses, weighs the fish/prawns/clams you select and you pay based on the size. This restaurant was great but very out of the way – about 30 minutes walk away from the shore and the neighborhood. There are tons of restaurants in Belém and while I loved that one because it mostly caters to locals, there are plenty of spots on the main drag too – some close to the famous Monument of the Discoveries, which honors the many Portuguese explorers.
Airbnb in Graca
Our apartment was in a different neighborhood called Graca. It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in town and on some of the highest hills in Lisbon. Our apartment faced the coolest street-art display and there were many more to see in this ultra-hip area. Not much to tour and see in Graca, per se, but a great spot for breakfast, an afternoon cocktail or a nightcap.
Kids in Sintra
I would 1000% recommend going to Sintra. It’s a must-do and will take a whole day. It is easiest to take a train there as parking is very limited. It’s a bit of a racket when you get off the train because there is a bus that does a loop so you then pay for the bus to take you up the hill. It’s too long a walk, though, because you’d lose precious time at the museums and castles. We did the train then bus and it was fine.
Famous for its UNESCO World Heritage status and clifftop palaces, the Castle of the Moors is simply amazing. I recommend starting there because more people do that last since it’s the last bus stop. But at the end of the day, it’s far more crowded.
We hit the castle, then the famous Pena Palace then had lunch in town. After that, we saw some of the lesser known houses and castles and loved that we had more space in which to see them as the crowds had moved to the places we had already seen. The Castle of the Moors is the most breathtaking – the colors on the exterior alone are Instagram-worthy!
Estoril for the Day
Another day-trip-worthy place is Estoril. It’s a pretty beach town with a boardwalk where people stroll in the afternoons. It’s quite the scene, especially on weekends. It also lets you see a wealthier suburb just outside of Lisbon. Steve and I enjoyed having cocktails and small snails (a specialty) on the beach while the kids played.
Algarve Highlights for Families
After our days exploring Lisbon, we rented a car and headed south toward the Algarve region. After about three hours, we hit the Lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente, which is the farthest southwest point in all of Portugal – and Europe. By luck, the lighthouse keeper was there and gave us and another family a tour of the lighthouse. It was really cool and something we didn’t expect.
After playing on the steep cliffs (and scaring this Mommy), we jumped back in the car for one more hour to Lagos. Lagos is the more mellow of the towns of the Algarve region of Portugal.
We stayed in an apartment near Praia Dona Ana beach which was one of the best beaches in all of Portugal. We loved the rocks and the “tunnels” you could swim through during low and high tide.
Beach Time in Lagos with Kids
During our time at the beach, we spent many hours just relaxing on the beach, making sand castles, collecting shells, swimming and hunting for crabs.
The kids really liked walking out during low tide at the beach at Praia Dona Ana, but one time, they got stuck on the other side when the tide came in! Luckily my husband went with them and they were able to walk back on the road or it would have been scary!
One day, we rented kayaks and a guide led us into many coves and tunnels. We loved seeing all these wonderful secret spots that are not accessible by land.
In the evenings, we walked about 10 minutes into town and fell in love with Dos Hermanos restaurant on a pretty little square. Another great seafood restaurant with tables inside or out.
And what could end our stay better than watching Portugal’s soccer team win the EuroCup. The whole town of Lagos went crazy – and celebrated into the early morning hours. Such an awesome time to be in Portugal!
The ROAM Report: Portugal
- Travelers: Dina and Steve Harrison and their kids, 9 and 7 years old
- Date: July 2016
- Itinerary: 4 Days in Lisbon AirBnB in the Graca neighborhood, 5 days in the Algarve (Villa Doris Suites)
- Budget: About $200 a night for lodging and another $100 for activities, food and transport – very reasonable for Europe!
Good to Know
Walking Shoes Lisbon is a walking city and it’s very hilly. Be prepared with good walking shoes.
Step Tracker Get your kids a smartwatch that tracks their steps. My kids were always excited when we end up wandering about 6-10 miles a day! And they always want to beat the previous day’s record. A tracker keeps the kids going and often let’s mom and dad take one more turn around one last block to see one last church, museum, etc.
Phones Matter I use my cell phone all the time for photos, Google Maps, the train and bus schedules, and dinner reservations. You can also buy museum tickets on the fly in many places. This means you’ll need decent coverage even if you don’t have WiFi. You’ll also need an external charger you can throw in your bag so you don’t have to head back to the hotel when you hit 20% left on your battery.
Airbnb Tips If you rent an AirBnB, ask the owner specific questions about where it’s located. Is it on top of a hill? How many steps to the door? While the answers to these questions shouldn’t scare you off, they’ll help you arrive prepared, especially if you’ve got a stroller, small children or elderly friends coming along!
Dina Harrison – February 2019
Like ambassadors of adorable, Dina’s two-of-the-cutest-kids-you’ll-
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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